In a pandemic, electronic signatures are needed to protect our democracy

By ERIC S. MASKIN & LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS  |  April 15, 2020

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts will hear a case Thursday with implications for the collection of signatures for placing issues on the election ballot that has profound importance for the quality of democracy in Massachusetts. It is imperative that the court and the secretary of state find a way to maintain the prospect of citizen initiative at this critical moment in the coronavirus pandemic.

Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution gives citizens the right to petition the state government and make law through ballot initiatives. That is, we can put potential laws directly on the ballot in general elections and have our fellow citizens vote these up or down (recreational marijuana was legalized in this way in 2016).

To prove that a measure has core support, Massachusetts requires that a petition to put a proposed law on the ballot must include two rounds of certified signatures: 80,234 by December of the year preceding the election, and another 13,374 by the following July.

For the 2020 election, several ballot initiatives easily passed the first signature hurdle (e.g., the initiative we personally are working on — ranked-choice voting — attracted over 111,000). However, these ballot initiative campaigns now face a daunting challenge with meeting the second hurdle. Historically, the vast majority of signatures are collected by volunteers in public places — shopping centers and the like. But this can’t work during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a person handing another person a pen and a clipboard for the ballot signature is a public health threat.